Exclusive! UK top marketer Aviva’s Amanda Mackenzie on glass ceilings, ads and AMV/BBDO

Amanda Mackenzie is arguably the most important woman in UK marketing, now chief marketing and communications officer of insurance giant Aviva (formerly Norwich Union).

She began her career in advertising at WCRS and then DMB&B (now, alas, no more) before becoming a top client at Air Miles, British Gas, BT and, now, Aviva.

Here she talks about why girls still find it hard to get the top jobs in business, why agency AMV/BBDO is good for her and why Aviva’s ads work.

1/ You’re one of the highest profile female marketing executives in the UK, and there are quite a few now. Is there still a glass ceiling between females taking over as CEOs in the companies they work for? Or, indeed, are marketing executives as a whole moving up?

In short, to answer the first part of the question: yes. Of course there are the brilliant exceptions like Val Gooding (BUPA), Helen Alexander (Economist), Dianne Thompson (Camelot), and Jill McDonald (McDonald’s). And indeed Justin King (Sainsbury’s), Terry Leahy (Tesco) and Scott Wheway (Boots) all came from marketing backgrounds and made it through to CEO.

However on the whole it cannot be denied that unless you have come through operational roles or finance, where you have actively managed a profit and loss account you are less likely to make that transition. Women on the whole still don’t do that enough. They are reluctant , or culture makes them so, take on those roles. It also doesn’t mean that because you are from marketing you are not able to run a company but you are considered more of a risk if you do not have broader experience upon which to draw.

You are right, it is splendid that the power 100 in marketing terms is much more balanced whereas just ten years ago there was a a much smaller number. So things are changing but if we now want to see CEOs with marketing as a background, regardless of gender, they need to have broad experience. By the way that is not always the case for a plc board…some boards are more lateral in looking at different skills and experiences to bring diversity. But of course a non-executive role is very different from being a CEO.

2/ You joined Norwich Union as it was in the process of becoming Aviva and oversaw the first ad campaign to relaunch the company which starred Bruce Willis and Ringo Starr among others. This was ridiculed by some on the basis of what did Bruce Willis (or indeed Ringo Starr) know of Norwich Union/Aviva? Looking back on the launch, what do you think you got right and what wrong?

I am not sure it was ridiculed….there were some people who needed convincing but in the end, and helped by the fact that customers were convinced, all the metrics told us we had achieved what we set out to achieve and more. Better still as we did it in the middle of the financial downturn the costs were cheaper than our plan and we were able to be heard very loudly. I am not sure we needed the follow up advertising…it worked well but actually we didn’t need it as the actual work using celebrities had cut through so much.

In that regard Bruce Willis was the most recalled celebrity. And the reason we used them was because they had all changed their name and gone on to great things. They did not need to know anything about Aviva . We got the internal comms right and the broader stakeholder management right I think. Naturally when a journalists wrote less than positively I wished I had got to them first….but in the grand scheme of things and not wishing to sound complacent it went very well for us.

It was Andrew Moss our CEO who had the vision to make this to happen and the whole business got behind it and made it successful. In our employee engagement survey the vast majority of people say they are proud to work for Aviva and I think that has to be a very concrete test.

3/ You have had a long-term relationship in the UK with AMV/BBDO. What are the agency’s most valuable qualities? Is the fact that its very top management is female attractive and does that help to make it the undeniably successful agency it is?

Hmm, trying to decode this question. I think it’s a bit cheeky. AMV BBDO is an exceptional agency and, yes, I have worked with them on and off for over ten years. Aside from the brilliant leadership, of which more shortly, I and my colleagues at BT and then Aviva have worked with some excellent people, planners creatives and account folk.

What matters to me in a relationship with an agency is the ability to be able to pick the phone up and be totally straightforward when something is not as you would wish…and you are heard and things happen . Often when you hear a ‘client’ has a problem with the agency it come from months of unsatisfactory communication.

Similarly agencies work best when they feel appreciated and that clients trust them. AMV has always made it very easy to feel that way. As for the leadership, chairman Farah Ramzan Golant and group chairman in Cilla Snowball are exceptional business people. Strategic, thoughtful, supportive.

They are good at relationships and is that because they are female? I guess in part but no more than it can be for men. Oh and yes they happen to be attractive. So looking forward to your next blog discussing an agency run by two men (that will be most of them) would you ask the same question?

4/Many major clients these days seem to go for an agency roster line-up where they, in effect, invite the agencies to compete for each new big campaign? Have you ever been tempted to do this? Or is it just nervous clients hedging their bets?

Never tempted because I believe the best work comes form enduring relationships and working together through thick and thin. I also am not prepared to have all that time wrapped up in permanent pitching. I know some think they get the best work that way…I just don’t. I want people who work on our business to be thinking about it when they clean their teeth at night and be passionate about my brands and I happen to believe that this happens in an atmosphere of trust.

5/Financial services companies wouldn’t top many popularity polls in the UK at the moment. Aviva obviously isn’t a bank but as a major shareholder in UK companies, including banks, the company has a role to play in bank governance. Does being part of the financial community cramp your style in how you communicate your products?

No….and actually, if anything, it makes what we say sing far louder. Water in a desert and all that….because what customers rightly want to hear from us is that we are on their side, bringing peace of mind to them in the products they purchase from us. They want to feel recognised and we are putting a lot of effort in to making that the reality.

6/What is your favourite among the campaigns that you’ve been involved in, anywhere, and why?

Forgive me I have to mention a few. Some wonderful Tony Brignull ads for Scope, the charity for cerebral palsy, many years ago (Brignull was one of CDP’s star copywriters). The launch work for Maltesers (at Mars), ‘the lighter way to enjoy chocolate,’ the launch of BT broadband and, of course, the Aviva work.

7/Shouldn’t big companies like Aviva just leave social media to ordinary people?

Why? If a company’s reputation can be so dismantled by social media surely one has to play a part in helping shape it for the better? What’s more, customers are genuinely pleased if you are able to help with something they didn’t think would happen. Of course, I don’t think one should expect to be friends via social media. That lovely headline I saw last week “I don’t want to be friends with my butter” says it all. Gratuitous corporate use of social media ..no thanks.

8/What’s so good about Paul Whitehouse ( UK comedian, current Aviva ad presenter)?

Well he has helped Aviva have a higher brand awareness than we did at anytime at Norwich Union. He is making the advertising work about one third harder and he is making the cross-over work between our general insurance and our pensions business work in a way that no competitor or we have done before. Apart from that not much really.

9/Which individuals, companies and institutions have had the biggest effect on your career?

Every company has taught me something…even if I didn’t want to know it. Happiest times have been Air Miles and Aviva. But everywhere I have worked has been defined in large part by wonderful people. Procter & Gamble got me started in advertising. Mars helped me fall in love with it. Agency DMB&B was where I grew up in a corporate sense….guided by brilliant people like John Poorta (planning guru and Amanda’s husband) and Peter Davies (former DMB&B group account director).

Air Miles was one of the most supportive teams you could ever imagine. The MD Judith Thorne was brilliant. Ben Verwaayen at BT was amazing. And in the past three years Andrew Moss, Colin Sharman (chairman of Aviva), Helen Alexander, Cilla Snowball. And they each know why!

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.